Roll out red carpet for stars

AC Milan, Chelsea FC to play exhibition at M&T Bank Stadium in July

Soccer

March 25, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Two of Europe's richest and most successful soccer clubs, AC Milan and Chelsea FC, will play an exhibition match in July at M&T Bank Stadium.

The match, scheduled for 8 p.m. July 24, is part of a six-city, round-robin tournament that also includes FC Internazionale Milano and Club America of Mexico. ESPN will broadcast the friendly.

The Chelsea-AC Milan match will probably bring together the greatest collection of soccer talent to compete in Baltimore. The clubs will be deep into preseason preparations by the time they arrive, so the best players are likely to see action.

"It's a really important time of year for us," said Peter Kenyon, chief executive of Chelsea. "We very much use this as a time to bond new players into the existing squad. So we expect that all of our squad, all of our first-team players will be on hand."

That glittering array includes Chelsea stalwarts John Terry and Frank Lampard and former FIFA world players of the year Ronaldinho and Kaka, part of an impressive Brazilian contingent on AC Milan.

"The Baltimore fans will have a rare opportunity to see some of the most important, renowned players in the world," AC Milan director Umberto Gandini said.

Chelsea has toured the U.S. five of the past six summers, and Kenyon said he has noticed a growing sophistication in U.S. soccer audiences.

"We see an intimate knowledge of the game," he said. "When fans are able to get so close, an appreciation of soccer players as real athletes comes across. A lot of times, that's taken for granted in Europe, so the players enjoy it."

Chelsea and the Baltimore Bays soccer club will announce a partnership today under which Chelsea coaches will provide instruction to Bays players and coaches. Kevin Healey, president of the Bays and the Baltimore Blast, said that relationship helped Baltimore to secure the Chelsea-AC Milan game.

"I think it's huge for Baltimore to have two of the best clubs in the world playing here," he said.

Gandini predicted a wide-open, entertaining match, free of the tension that roils club showdowns in Europe.

"It is a festival, a party," he said of exhibitions on U.S. soil.

AC Milan, founded in 1899 and owned by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, has won more international competitions than any other club in the world. Under Berlusconi, the club has consistently signed performers known for their artistry as much as their production. (David Beckham, on loan to Milan, is expected to be back with the Los Angeles Galaxy by July.)

"Our philosophy has always been to play entertaining football in a way that wins games," Gandini said. "But always to play entertaining, attacking football."

Chelsea, founded in 1905, has emerged only recently as a comparable power on the international stage. Under the ownership of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, Chelsea has become the New York Yankees of European club soccer, rapidly accumulating brilliant players at astounding prices. The club won back-to-back English Premier League titles in 2004-2005 and 2005-2006.

Tickets for the match, from $35 and $125, are available at worldfootballchallenge.com.

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